Love in Persian literature

This speech was first delivered at a conference sponsored by “Center for Iranian Research and Analysis” held in Berkeley, April 1990 in the presence of Ahmad Shamlu and his wife Aida Sarkisian. The Persian version of this speech had been published many times in different places, including my book Poetry and Politics and Twenty-Four Other Essays [1].

In order to examine the profile of women in the poetry of one of the most influential modern Persian poets, Ahmad Shamlu (1925-2000) it is necessary to see him in relation to his predecessors. In our classical literature, woman has an absent presence, and perhaps the best way to see her figure is to demystify the mystical meaning of “love”. Rumi (1207-73) divides “love into two mutually-exclusive parts: spiritual and carnal. A mystic man should cleanse himself from bodily pleasures and led by his master fills his heart with the love of God. In Rumi’s poetry, Woman represents carnal infatuation or animal ego and a mystic man should kill his temptations for this kind of deadly love: “Choose and love the living one who is eternal”. On the contrary, in his lyrics Hafiz (born 1320) glorifies love for earthly beloved and uses “mystical love” only as a garnish. Nevertheless, Hafiz’s earthly love is, also mostly non-physical. The lover man is only a “gazer” staring at his beloved from her double chin upward. The beloved woman is not only deprived of physics but also any individual identity. Furthermore, this illusory woman is oppressor and bloodthirsty and like Afrasiab, the mythical king of Turan, who opened doors for the murder of his Iranian son-in-law, Sivash, sheds the blood of his beloved: “The king of Turan hears what my rivals say / Should be ashamed of the bloody injustice to Siavash”. In reality, man is the oppressor and woman the oppressed but, in imagination, their roles are inverted because as psycho-analysts say, sadism and masochism are often interchangeable. [2].

With the emergence of modern Persian literature, woman shows her face and Rumi’s spiritual love as well as Hafiz’s earthly beloved are partially demystified. In his ballad, “Afsaneh” Nima Yushij (1896-1960), the founder of modern Persian poetry depicts a melancholy, but earthly love. His love has a concrete identity and belongs to a specific person and natural and social environment. A nomadic shepherd, filled with melancholy is sitting in a valley in deilaman, near the Caspian sea. He first describes a wild pear tree, a native lark and a wolf peeking out of a rockand then begins a dialogue with his heart which at the same time represents his beloved Afsaneh. Nima challenges the old bard, Hafiz from the tongue of this shepherd:

Oh, “hafiz! What is this lie and deception
That you put in the mouth of the cup bearer?
You cannot fool me if moan eternally
That you love only what remains eternal
No! I fall in love only with the fleeting [3].”

Building on this modern concept of love Shamlu begins to write his love poems. Inspired by a note that the poet himself had added to the fifth edition of his collection of poems, Fresh Air in 1976 [4], I divide Shamlu’s love poetry into two periods: Roxana and Aida. The former is a historical figure and the latter the name of an Iranian-Armenian woman who married Shamlu in 1964. Roxana or Roshanak was the daughter of a Soghdian king whom Alexander, the Macedonian emperor married during his Persian campaign. In addition to a ballad, called “Roxana” which is written in 1950, Shamlu mentions the name of this woman directly or indirectly in some of his other poems in Fresh Air. He writes: “Roxana, a name which means “light” and “bright” represents an imaginary woman whose love brings light, freedom and hope. It took twelve years until such a woman found body and soul in my new collection of poems, Aida in the Mirror.. Before that time, this woman was a misty figure, fleeting and hard to catch, elixir and rare. Hopeless to find such a companion I wrote the poem “Roxana”.” P. 348

In the poem, “Roxana”, we are told of a man who lives in a wooden shack near the sea and the people call him a madman. He wants to join Roxana, the spirit of the sea, but she does not reciprocate his love:

“Let no one find out until the sun
Which must shine to the meadows and forests
Will finally dry out the waters of this separating sea
And put me on the sand as a beaten boat
Thus reunite my soul with Roxana,
The spirit of sea, love and life.”

The unsuccessful lover who in the beginning of the poem remembers the past so bitterly: “Let no one find out/ that I was stung / instead of being caressed or kissed” now at the end of the poem, sums up his unrequited love from the tongue of this misty woman as follows:

“And every one holds captive what one loves
And every woman locks her rolling pearl
In the confines of a little box”

In the poem, “Sonnet of the Last Isolation” dated 1952 we face the same hopelessness again:

“How could I be the harbinger
Of mankind and the whole world
When I have not found a love
Filled with light?”

In the poem, “Great Sonnet” dated 1951 Roxana is transformed into a “lunar woman”, and the poet after calling her “the second half of my soul” writes in frustration:

And there, in the starry horizon
Rises my lunar woman
With the sunny night of her eyes
In the purple blazes of pain.
Take me with you! Oh, the great knight of my white dreams!
Take me with you!”

In the poem, “Sonnet of the Last Isolation” the relationship between the poet and his imaginary beloved is compared to that of a child longing for love from a cruel mother:

“Something greater than all stars of all gods
It is the heart of a woman who can turn me into a child
Submissively hanging to her skirt,
Because for a long time I have been nothing but
A fearful loneliness chewed by the cold teeth of alienation
Shouting from the depth of my solitude.”

The other name of Roxana, this hypothetical woman is “Golku” whose name is mentioned in some of the poems of Fresh Air. The poet himself explains the word “Golku” as follows: “Golku is a name for girls which I’ve heard only one time in the villages of Gorgan, near Ali-Abad. One can accept that it should be pronounced “Golaku” the same way that the people of Shiraz pronounce the word “dokhtarku”. But the pronunciation which I prefer and have used in one or two of my poems is “Golku” (which literally means “where is the flower?”) pointing at a woman who could be an ideal lober or wife. At that time I thought that the suffix “ku” (where?) in the word “Golku” without necessarily signifying its usual literal meaning,could imply the absence and inaccessibility of the ideal woman.” p. 345

Roxana and Golku are both imaginary women with this difference that the former is portrayed in a melancholic atmosphere, whereas the latter appears in social struggle supporting her revolutionary man. In the poem, “Fog” dated 1953 we read:

“I will reach home
Hidden in the cloak of fog
And surprise Golku.
She suddenly sees me at the doorway
With a drop of tears in her eyes
And a smile on her lips
She will say:
The desert is fully covered with fog
I was thinking to myself
If the fog would last until the morning
The brave men could return to visit their beloved ones”

The brave men should choose revolutionary struggle and welcome death like Abaee, a country teacher in Turkman Sahra, but girls such as Golku are advised to wait and only polish the weapon of Abaee’s revenge.(Look at the poem, “From the Wound of Abaee’s Heart” 1951) In another poem, “To Whom Your Love Is Life”, dated 1951 we read about a war being fought between men and their enemies and the poet ask women to back men in their struggle. His tone resembles a classical Persian poet who in one of his proverbial verse, values women only for giving birth and raise “male lions”:

“You, who have created epochs and centuries
And born men who had engraved epigraph
On their hanging scaffolds
And you carry the great history of our future
In your little wombs full of hope
And you have taught us endurance and strength
Against torture and pain.”

Such women even owe their beauties to the astatic taste of men:

“You, who are beautiful
So that men praise beauty
And every man who follows a path
Is charmed by your sweet smile
And every man in his struggle for freedom
Is tied to the golden chain of your love”

Although women are called “the soul of life” but the actual protagonists are men:

“You, who are the soul of life
And the life without you is a cold hearth
You, whose songs of your embracing soul
Sound lively in the ears of men’s souls
You who in the fearful journey of life
Have given peace to men inn your bosoms
And every self-worshipping man has worshipped you,
Give us your love
You whose love is life
And show your anger toward our enemies
You whose anger is death.”

In the famous ballad, “Fairies” dated 1953 we see that the women of the tale, that is, the fairies, in the fight between the captured men and the demons have nothin to offer but daydreams, frailties and tears.

In the collection of poems, The Garden of Mirrors, which was published [5] after Fresh Air and prior to Aida in the Mirror [6] and Moments and Ever [7], we find out that the poet is still looking for his “second-half of soul” and his “twin female”. For example in the poem, “Punishment” dated 1955 he says:

“I do not find anything in women
Unless I discover my twin one day
In surprise and silence”

Finally this search bear fruit in Aida in the Mirror. In the poem, “The Fifth Hymn”written in the beginning of 1960’s, the poet says to his beloved, “Aida: “You and I are two halves of one reality.” Aida in the Mirror should be considered the best work of Ahmad Shamlu in poetry. In this volume one can no longer find exercises after Nima Yushij or French romantic writers and the poet has developed his own special style and diction. The language in these poems is simple and differs from an archaic tongue that Shamlu experiments in his later works influenced by the Persian prose writers of eleventh century like the historian, Abu al-Fazl bayhaqi (d. 1077). The poet regards the passion of his love as new source of his artistic creativity:

“Not in dream but in front of me
I see the creative years that I’ll begin
My memory which is pregnant to a bountiful love
Multiplies the joy of becoming mother
In a long-delayed yawn.
You and your sincere passion
I and our home –
A table and a lamp.
Yes, in the deadliest moments of waiting
I pursue life in my dreams
In my dreams and my hopes.”
(from “Song of the One Who Returns home from the Alley”)

And also look at the poem “..And A Longing” from the collection of poems  Elegies of the Earth [8] in which he considers Aida’s love as a new birth for him at age forty.

Aida’s love occurs at the time when the poet has become tired of “men and their odorous worlds” looking for a refuge in seclusion. In the poem, “The Road Beyond the Bridge” he says:

“I no longer want to travel
I no longer have a motivation
The train which is bellowing by our village at midnight
Does not diminish my sky
And the road which pass on the back of the bridge
Does not carry my desires
To the other horizons.
Men and their odorous worlds
Are a hellish book
Which I’ve memorized word by word
To find the high-reaching secret of isolation.”

This love requires a return from city to the countryside, from society to nature. In the poem, “Aida in the Mirror”, from which the book takes its name, we read:

“And your bosom
Is a small place for living
A small place for dying
And flight from the fraudulent city
Which shamelessly accuses the sky
Of impurity.”

Also in the poem, “The Fifth Hymn” the poet writes:

“Our love is a village which never goes to sleep
Not at nights and not during the day,
And even for a moment
Movement, passion and life
Do not die away in it”

Now Roxana, the misty woman takes a human shape in Aida and becomes a real person. In the poem, “Hymn for Appreciation and Benediction” Shamlu says:

“Your kisses are chirping sparrows of the garden
And your breasts are the hives in the mountain.”

And also in the poem, “Hymn of Intimacy” we read:

“Who are you that so trustfully
I would tell you my name,
Put my house key in your hand,
Share the bread of my happiness with you,
Sit down at your side
And go to sleep so gently
On your lap?”

Even the image of “night” that in Shamlu’s previous poems (as well as his future works) was usually used as an allegory for “political coercion”, now in this book regains its natural beauty and refers to the night itself. For example in the poem, “You and I, Tree and the Rain” in which the poet uses the language of folk songs we read:

“You are big like the night
In moonlight or no moonlight
You are big like the night
You are the moonlight itself
Yes, the moonlight itself
Even when the moonlight goes away and the night
Should go a long way to reach the morning gate
You are big and deep like the night
Yes, like the night.”

Love for Aida reaches the apex of infatuation in the next Shamlu’s collection of poems, Aida, Tree and Dagger and Memory [9] as seen in this poem:

“First I gazed at her for such a long time
Tthat when I took my gaze away from her
Everything in my whereabouts
Had turned into her figure
Then I understood that I have no escape
From her.” (“Nocturnal”)

However when the poet had to leave the countryside and come to the city, this infatuation diminishes and turns into companionship. Here Shamlu alludes to his pen-name, “Dawn”when referring to himself:

“And alas! That Dawn left the green valley
And regretfully returned to the city
Because in such a great era
One should go through hardship
To make ends meet
And save one’s honor.” (“Nocturnal”)

In the above piece, the “great era” sarcastically refers to the “White Revolution” of the Shah which was supposed to bring equality and prosperity for the Iranian people in early 1960’s.

Subsequently Ahmad Shamlu comes out of his seclusion and his later collections of poetry, such as Blooming in the Fog [10]; Dagger in the Platter [11]; Abraham in the Fire; [12] The Humble Discoverers of Hemlock [13]; and Little Songs of Exile [14] demonstrate his attention to social issues especially the urban armed struggle of the leftist intellectuals in 1970’s. In spite of the fact that in this decade, (contrary to the 40’s and 50’s during which the poem, “To Whom Your love Is Life” had been written) intellectual women play an independent and active role in social struggle Shamlu does not write any poem for these women, including Marziyeh Ahmadi-Oskooi who belongs to the same armed group which Ahmad Zeibaram does. Both of these individuals are heroically died and Shamlu writes a beautiful poem for the latter but not for the former.

The profile of women in the poetry of Ahmad Shamlu is gradually becoming unveiled from Roxana to Aida, but there are still some points of veil left. In Roxana, woman has an ethereal and intangible face lacking a real, personal identity. In other words, Shamlu in Roxana has not yet released himself from the illusory love in Rumi and Hafiz. Instead of recognizing woman as a human being with concrete flesh and soul, emotions, thoughts, actions and individuality and entitled to social rights equal to those of man, he portrays woman as a symbol representing abstract concepts such as love, hope and freedom. In Aida, woman is unveiled and the reader finds a real human being behind the figure of Ayda characterized with individual flesh and soul and identity. Here, love is a concrete experience and not a mystical illusion or melancholic imagination. This is exactly the paradigm which differentiates modern literature from medieval prose and verse, that is, turning to concrete and individual rather than abstract and generic, developing characters instead of typology.

Nevertheless, even in Aida in the Mirror we are not able to find an equal and free love between the two lovers. Shamlu looks for a shelter in this love, or as he says himself a “temple” (“The Road Beyond the Bridge”) and a “mosque” (in Phoenix in the Rain [15]) and Aida is created only because she is the creator of this tranquility. Perhaps this love relationship is shaped by an approach toward sexual love between men and women that Shamlu has been attracted to from the time of writing poems for Roxana. According to this concept two lovers represent two “incomplete halves” who should join together in order to become a whole and complete unit. For example, the previously mentioned metaphors such as “two halves of one soul”, “twin woman” and “two halves of one reality” stem from such a notion. In my opinion, the love theory of “the complemental pair” reflects an idealized form of the family institution and the social division of labor between the female housewife and the male breadwinner. The subsequent mental slavery of this love theory, in turn, facilitates the economic slavery of women. On the contrary, equal and free love requires a love relation between two individuals with independent and separate identity in which neither personal independance nor emotional/sexual dependance are compromised.

Nevertheless, we should not forget that among the well-known contemporary Iranian poets, with the exception of a woman, Forough Farokhzad (1935-67), perhaps Ahmad Shamlu is the only poet who in his poetry a real woman, lover, wife (by the name of Aida) is artistically portrayed, and the story of her love and Shamlu inspires the creation of one of the best collections of Persian modern poetry. In the poetry of the other poets, one usually finds “illusory love” and “ethereal” or “loose” women. In a country in which, as Shamlu says, “smile is amputated from lips” and “love is suspended from the ceiling” (in Little Songs of Exile) the artistic expression of love to a real woman should be regarded as a special gift.

At the Threshold of Time
In memory of Ahmad Shamlu
by Majid Naficy

Am I able to capture time
In a mass of ice?
So I must start again
When you opened the door
Of your little journals for me
With your sleeves rolled up to the elbow
Smiles and the scent of printed letters.
I was crying at the threshold
Because I saw the man of my epics
Standing upright in front of me.
You said: “My little one!
Why are you crying?”

Am I able to capture time
In a flood of alcohol?
So I must start again
When the lady of waters
Opened the door of your home for me
With hair down to her shoulders
And moved like a light shadow.
You and I sat at the window
with empty cups and parched lips
And the thirst of years on our tongues.
You called: “Aida!
Where are you?”

But time is only time
The ice melts and drips
From the corners of my eyes,
Alcohol only buoys my soul
And you remain alone
With the splendid torso of your poetry.
Your amputated legs
Is still jutting out of the earth
Your sharpened pencils
Are still waiting for your hand
Leaning over the top of the mug
On your desk.
With each tip of the finger
That opens the leave of your fragrant books:
They say: “No! the poet of our epics
Is still tall and upright
At the threshold of time.

July 24, 2000

Majid Naficy’s books include Muddy Shoes; Father and Son and Modernism and Ideology in Persian Literature. He lives in Los Angeles.

[1] Sh’er va Siasat va Bist o Chahr Maqaleh-ye digar, Baran publisher, Sweden, 1996.
[2]For further analysis look at my book in Persian  Dar Jostojooy-e Shadi: Dar Naqd-e Farhang-e Margparasti va Mardsalari dar Iran (In Search of Joy: A Critique of Death-Oriented and Male-Dominated Culture in Iran), Baran publisher, Sweden, 1991.
[3] For further analysis look at my book Modernism and Ideology in Persian Literature: A Return to Nature in the Poetry of Nima Yushij, University Press of America, 1979.
[4] Hava-ye Tazeh, Nil publisher, Tehran 1976. All quotations and poems by Ahmad Shamlu mentioned in this essay are translated into English by me.
[5] Bagh-e Ayeneh, Tehran, 1960.
[6] Aida dar Ayeneh, Nil publisher, Tehran 1964.
[7] Lahzeh-ha va Hamisheh, Nil publisher, Tehran, 1964
[8] Marsiyeh-haye Khak, Amirkabir publisher, Tehran, 1969.
[9] Aida, Derakht o Khanjar o Khatereh, Nil publisher, Tehran, 1965.
[10] Shokoftan dar Meh, Zaman publisher, Tehran, 1970.
[11] Deshneh dar Dis, Zaman publisher, Tehran, 1973.
[12] Ibrahim dar Atash, Iran Zamin publisher, Tehran, 1977.
[13] Kashefan-e Forootan-e Shokaran, Azad publisher, Tehran, 1979.
[14] Taraneh-haya Koochek-e Ghorbat, Azad publisher, Tehran, 1979.
[15] Qoqnoos dar Baran, Nil publisher, Tehran, 1966.

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